What is anxiety for? Why am I anxious?

Levels of anxiety have never been higher. Billions of people are struggling to cope with economic uncertainty while also worrying about their health and that of their children and vulnerable relatives. Most are trapped at home with no relief in sight, amid streams of unrelenting bad news. When people are anxious and they feel they have no control, panic can set in. Once this happens, people struggle to focus and this leads to a lack of clarity, which triggers further panic. Fear traps people and prevents them from moving forward and doing the things that could improve their situation.

So, where does anxiety come from and what is its purpose? To answer this we need to look at how the brain works. Our brain evolved to keep us alive in circumstances where the threats to our existence were mostly physical. And the way it did this was to wire itself to be very sensitive to monitoring for, and reacting, to danger. In fact, detecting danger was so vitally important that evolution designed the brain to answer the question ‘What should I do’ before ‘What is it’. Running with great haste from danger is much more important than knowing exactly what the danger is. If you see a crowd of panicked people running towards you, you don’t need to know what the problem is; your brain will tell you that you need to run. When the brain detects danger it releases cortisol and adrenaline and, along with a host of other physiological effects, it prepares the body to run or fight. This burst of neurochemical energy is getting you ready for action and it’s a very real feeling. And the brain is always looking out for threats – the system operates 24×7. This makes sense because, even when you’re asleep, you need to be able to detect dangers like smoke or noises. As an evolutionary strategy this worked really well when we were living in the savannahs of Africa. Life was precarious. There were a lot of things that might kill us and we needed to make really quick decisions. So evolution designed our brains to react without having to do any thinking. Scientists refer to this part of the brain as our lower brain – it’s hyper-sensitive and hyper-responsive and over 150 mio years old.

Happily for us, evolution also gave us a newer and higher brain. It sits above the lower brain and it’s only a few million years old. This higher brain does some astounding things that we think make us uniquely human. It allows us to do things like think about our own thinking. It allows us to take someone else’s perspective, even if we don’t agree with them. And it means we can think about abstract concepts, like the future. But equally importantly, this higher brain acts as a brake on the lower brain. The higher brain is the one that says ‘I wonder what that is’ and ‘That’s interesting. Let me think about that’. And normally this works fine until the lower brain gets triggered and interrupts the functioning of the higher brain.

But the problem we have is that the lower brain did not evolve to make sense of today’s world and it doesn’t differentiate between physical threats and emotional threats. It still reacts to any perceived threat by releasing cortisol and adrenaline, even if that threat is something imagined in the future or something on the TV. Right now it is being triggered by threats to our financial situation. We perceive this as money anxiety and, in effect, it’s our lower brain shouting ‘WATCH OUT. DO SOMETHING’. If we don’t recognise it and deal with it, this anxiety can lead to panic.

The next article will look at ways to deal with anxiety. To learn more about your brain, go to:




Photo by Alina Grubnyak on Unsplash